As the fair trade group TransFair celebrates its 20th anniversary, its long-time head discusses the trade association's history and what remains to be done to get more fair trade products in consumers' shopping carts.
Dieter Overath needed some time before he found his calling in life. He studied business with an emphasis on marketing. Meanwhile, he started working with the human rights organization Amnesty International and was responsible for public relations and campaigning at the group's German branch for several years.
A job offer came along in 1992 that finally put his professional qualifications and his volunteer work to good use. The "Consortium of Smallholder Coffee Farmers," which was founded by several religious and development organizations, was looking for someone to promote the idea of fair trade in Germany.
"I had experience with developing countries and with Amnesty International, too. Plus, I was a business graduate. Everything suddenly came together," Overath told DW.
His living room served as an office for the first few months before he eventually rented office space in southern Cologne. The initial logo and concept that are now known as TransFair were developed there.
The association doesn't deal with trade directly. FairTrans gives its seal of approval to license holders who are committed to paying fair wages and adhering to specific working conditions. The first license holder was the church company GEPA, which has been offering fair trade goods in so-called Third World shops since the 1970s.
Bringing fair trade to the public
Overath saw one clear way to free fair trade in Germany from a niche-existence: customers needed to see the products in supermarkets and discount chains. Within one year, he succeeded in putting fair trade coffee on shelves in the well-known Edeka supermarkets.
Other big name supermarkets like Rewe began selling fair trade goods by the spring of 1993. This quick increase in sales helped TransFair move away from dependence on church subsidies to financial independence thanks to money from the licensing fees charged to its trading partners.
TransFair planned from the very beginning to expand its range of products from just coffee, and tea, cocoa, and sugar soon followed. The selection has evolved beyond food, and customers can now purchase fair trade soccer balls, flowers, and, most recently, furniture.
Professionalism is the key to success
Overath said he's seen many good initiatives fail due to an overall lack of professionalism noticeable in key details, such as poor organizational strategies and poor management. As the brand grew, so did the team. TransFair now employs 23 people, 14 of whom work in its marketing department.
The staff combines diverse knowledge of the countries it's trying to help with a wealth of experience in management. Young experts on Africa work alongside middle-aged colleagues' who come from the industrial sector.
The team is very active. It maintains a professional website aimed at students, journalists, and companies. It also holds regular press conferences, events, including the Fair Trade Awards for noteworthy dedication in fair trade, and ad campaigns with celebrities. And that's in addition to the large demand for new campaigns to spread the word about fair trade.
"Our level of recognition has reached 70 percent. Large corporations spend a lot of money to achieve that kind of popularity," said Overath.
Transparency means credibility
Most consumers not only know the TransFair stamp, which was renamed Fairtrade several years ago, they also trust it.
TransFair developed the Fairtrade Code in 2009 so customers would know the origins of the products they buy.
For example, customers can look at the code and see where their roses were grown and they can find out how the fair trade business improves the living and working conditions for the employees there.
In the 20 years that Overath has been the director of TransFair, the concept of fair trade as a form of official development aid has also changed. Overath emphasized that TransFair was never a charity project.
"Fair trade means fair prices for good quality," he said.
The organization had been inviting representatives from the production cooperative to the annual planning meetings, but it wasn't until 2010 that the representatives of producers from Africa, Latin America, and Asia had an equal vote on fair trade issues.
A challenge and a privilege
Although Overath has been worked on the same issues for two decades, he said he still finds his task interesting because he's constantly negotiating with new customers. And he still has new goals, like promoting fair trade candy, or convincing Germany's railway company, Deutsche Bahn, to sell only fair trade coffee.
"How can I convince businesses stuck in their old way of thinking and how can I get consumers to stop hunting for the best deal?" Overath said he wonders, adding that his finds his job to be an exciting challenge for him after 20 years in the business.
"Making possible what was once considered impossible, you probably have that kind of a chance once in a lifetime," he said. "It's a huge privilege for me to have contributed to something like this and that's gratifying."
Author: Rachel Gessat/kms
Editor: Anke Rasper